With a budget of $65 million, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is touted as the most lavish musical ever mounted on Broadway. Much of the money has been invested in mechanical lifts and flying machines, high-tech costumes and, unfortunately, medical bills. Already one performer has broken both wrists, another has broken both feet, another has fractured his ribs and injured his back, and the leading actress has suffered a concussion that took her out of the show for a while. And Spider-Man hasn’t even officially opened yet. (It’s still in previews, and the official opening date, when the show will be set in stone and critics are invited to write their reviews, keeps being pushed back.)
You know you’re in trouble when the stage manager has to make an announcement before the first act assuring the audience that OSHA representatives are on hand backstage to make sure the stunts are in full compliance with safety requirements, and that the state Department of Labor has okayed the production, despite the numerous injuries. (The continued injury rate gives you a lot of confidence in OSHA and the Department of Labor, doesn’t it?) Going to a performance of this new musical feels eerily like going to a hockey game or a stock car race — you hate to admit it, but you’re almost hoping to see blood. Look at all the laughs Conan O’Brien has milked from the show’s growing injury list.
Let’s be frank: accidents aside, the show was doomed from the beginning. All the stunts and technical tricks in the world can’t make up for a bad script, and this one is a snoozer. It gained the potential for an interesting plot by introducing an unexpected new character, the mythological Arachne of Greek mythology, who was transformed into a spider for boasting that she was a better weaver than Athena, patron goddess of weaving. Two characters from different eras cursed with spidery traits and struggling to become human again could have produced a dynamic new story.
But instead of focusing on this new character development and trusting the audience to know the story of how Peter Parker became Spiderman (which any possible audience is certain to know already), the show’s producers decided to leave Arachne dangling (literally) for most of the show and concentrate on retelling the core story.
The production is framed by four punk teens who seem to be writing a script or filming a video (it isn’t clear what they are doing) in front of the stage. They tell each other the story, and then their story comes to life as the actors perform it, almost action-for-action and word-for-word the way we have already seen it in comic books, on film, and in amusement parks. First we hear it, then we see it — yet we already know it. Talk about overkill! I was ready to pull out the industrial strength Raid before the first act was finished.
Even then, the show could have survived a weak storyline if director Julie Taymor had delivered what she is known for: a montage of splashy, whimsical, creative production numbers that wow the audience with unexpected visual delights. This is what she did in her film Across the Universe and Broadway’s phenomenal The Lion King. In both those shows, the story is just a vehicle for delivering breathtaking musical productions — and it works. Who can forget the spectacular parade of lifelike animals or the dancing grasses and rivers in The Lion King? The sets, the costumes, the choreographies, and the thrilling music are simply magnificent, despite the silliness of some of the main characters.
Unfortunately, Taymor’s vision for Spider-Man falls as short as the safety harness that was supposed to catch Spidey’s stand-in during his unintentionally death-defying drop into the orchestra pit. Yes, Arachne’s spider costume is pretty cool as she hangs and twists in the air while her legs and abdomen grow. But we saw something quite similar at the end of Act One in Wicked. The dance of the golden spiders as they swing from 40-foot golden curtains is lovely as well, but we’ve seen that in every Cirque du Soleil show of the past 20 years. The fights between Spidey and Green Goblin as they fly above the audience and land in the balconies are probably the most unexpected and technically difficult, but only about half the audience can actually see them, since the fights take place high at the back of the theater.
In short, even if the production crew of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark can get its acts together and fix the technical problems, the show will still have artistic problems that may be insurmountable. It isn’t as showy as Cirque de Soleil, or as campy as Spamalot, or as interesting as Wicked. It simply isn’t very good, and it certainly isn’t worth risking people’s lives for. My advice: turn out the lights; the party’s over.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature and writing at Mercy College and Sing Sing prison. She is the entertainment editor for Liberty and is the founder and director of Anthem, the Libertarian Film Festival.